A recent op-ed in the New York Times by sociologist Amy Schalet raises some interesting issues about teenage boys and their experiences, or lack thereof, with sex (New York Times, 4/7/12). According to the National Survey of Family Growth, since 1988, boys and girls both are tending to put off first-time sex.
In 1988, many more boys than girls, ages 15 to 17, told researchers that they had had heterosexual intercourse.
But in the two decades since, the proportion of all American adolescents in their mid-teens claiming sexual experience has decreased, and for boys the decline has been especially steep, according to the National Survey of Family Growth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, though more than half of unmarried 18- and 19-year-olds have had sexual intercourse, fewer than 30 percent of 15- to 17-year-old boys and girls have, down from 50 percent of boys and 37 percent of girls in 1988. And there are virtually no gender differences in the timing of sexual initiation.
To Schalet, this is great news. As she sees it, boys are becoming more like girls, which means they’re coming to have more “romantic” ideas about sex. And this she further chalks up to the beneficial influence of feminism and its emphasis on breaking down gender roles.
But what’s odd about the piece is the fact that Schalet so ardently wants to ignore half of what she herself admits to be true – that boys are foregoing sex, despite the social stigma of being a virgin if you’re a teenage boy, not out or romanticism, but out of fear.
Fear seems to have played a role. In interviewing 10th graders for my book on teenage sexuality in the United States and the Netherlands, I found that American boys often said sex could end their life as they knew it. After a condom broke, one worried: “I could be screwed for the rest of my life.” Another boy said he did not want to have sex yet for fear of becoming a father before his time.
Schalet reports this and then tosses it aside in favor of some pretty dicey claims about boys and girls being similarly romantic about sex. It takes James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal here to point out what’s obvious to most of us (Wall Street Journal, 12/13/12). He first mentions that, given that it’s the female of the species who gets pregnant, carries and gives birth to the child, the fact that boys are now as leary of sex as girls is counterintuitive. Why would they be? Well, as Schalet admits, they’re scared, but it takes Taranto to explain why.
At the same time, there is good reason for males (men as well as boys) to be more fearful of sex than females. Contemporary reproductive technology and law place all the burden for unwanted pregnancy on them. Between the pill and abortion, women have complete control over the reproductive process. They can avoid or end any unwanted pregnancy, and the man involved has no say in the matter. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), the U.S. Supreme Court went so far as to hold that a married woman has the constitutional right to abort her husband’s child without even telling him.
A woman’s “reproductive rights” also include the right to carry a pregnancy to term. The crucial point here is that while the decision belongs entirely to her, in the event that a child is born the law assigns financial responsibility to the male involved. That is what the boy in her study means when he worries about being “screwed for the rest of my life.” Short of sterilization, the only way for a male to be sure of avoiding this fate is to abstain from sex.
Schalet misses the obvious, largely I suspect, because it fails to fit in with her Brave New World narrative in which all are equal and happy as clams about it. Taranto doesn’t even mention the many legal rulings in which, even when the condom didn’t fail, the man was still stuck with a child he didn’t want because the woman used his semen to secretly conceive. Indeed, Taranto barely scratches the surface of all the ways in which family law makes no pretense of treating men and women equally.
But he doesn’t need to; he makes his point well enough and moves on to remark that what’s true for teenage boys is equally true for adult males. Sex and commitment aren’t exactly enticing prospects when one has little-to-no control over the outcome of either. Does a man want to remain childless? If so, the only sure way of doing so is a wholehearted embrace of chastity, which is not appealing to most men.
If he does want children, as Taranto says, the decision is simply not up to him. Irrespective of his desires, he has nothing to say about whether or not his wife/partner will agree. But often enough they do agree and that means further uncertainty for him. Divorce is easy, quick and cheap and if she exercises that choice, the child he so desired may be largely lost to him. Again, the level of his involvement will be up to her. She’ll get custody and he’ll get the bill. His visitation will be sharply limited by the court and, if she so desires, limited further by her. He’ll be a wallet and not much more. Sound alluring?
I thought not; it’s not to men and not to teenagers either. I suppose that’s the good news about Schalet’s piece. The cold hard facts about sex, reproduction and family law seem to be well known to men and boys alike and they’re making some hard but reasonable decisions based on those facts.
I haven’t mentioned it in a while, but one good way to level the playing field between men and women would be to give men abortion rights. Of course I don’t mean giving men a say in women’s decisions about pregnancy and childbirth, but giving them a right of their own in which the woman has no say.
Specifically, men and boys should have the right to opt out of a child’s life. They should have the legal right to execute a document long prior to the birth of their child saying unequivocally that they will have neither parental rights nor parental obligations should the mother choose to carry the child to term. Once such a document is signed, the father will have no recourse, but neither will the mother or the state be able to come to him for support.
Males should have the right to execute such a document within, say, a 90-day period after they first learn about a pregnancy. That would encourage women to tell the right man about his child and, if he opted out, she’d be fully informed about his decision and could make hers accordingly.
Of course, we’re nowhere near such sanity and equality when it comes to family law. We’re still stuck in the past in which mothers effectively control father’s parental rights and duties. It’s just how the Amy Schalets of the world like things and it’s exactly why so many men and boys are so afraid.
Thanks to Jim for the heads-up.